Dissecting the Kerry Campaign

Remarking on the latest in a seemingly endless series of staff shake-ups by the Kerry campaign, Michael Barone reminds us of the old adage, “The campaign always reflects the candidate.”

The Kerry camp is also trying to change perceptions by flashing the anti-Bush anger that it was so careful to conceal at the Democratic convention. The Democratic National Committee has been running ads questioning Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard, even using footage from Dan Rather’s “60 Minutes II” story that relied on what are almost universally regarded as forged documents (Rather concedes they’re questionable). The Kerry campaign is running ads attacking Halliburton and charging that Dick Cheney has been profiting from the company’s work in Iraq. These will undoubtedly make Michael Moore Democrats happy. But will they convince voters in the middle that Bush and Cheney are dishonest?

September state polls are suggesting that the battleground may be changing. States both sides counted as battleground based on the 2000 returns — Arizona, Missouri — seem safe for Bush, while states solidly for Al Gore may now be in play. Polls show Bush narrowly behind or, in one case, ahead in New Jersey and narrowly behind in New York and Illinois — all states Gore carried by double digits. The Kerry campaign says, plausibly, that it’s skeptical about those results and vows, wisely in my view, that it won’t spend money in those states in any case. But these results could be evidence that suburban women this year are more interested in safety from terrorism than in choice on abortion. Note that Laura Bush last week made one appearance in New Jersey and another in a Pennsylvania town just across the river.

The odds are still against a smooth flight path for the Bush campaign. There will be presidential and vice presidential debates; there will probably be bad daily cycles for both sides; Old Media remains hostile to Bush, and despite Rather’s astonishing performance, is always quick to run stories that might hurt him. Events could move a decisive number of voters away from Bush and toward Kerry. But the contrast between the two campaigns is apparent. The Bush campaign is executing with confidence and verve a game plan it set out long ago. The Kerry campaign has been regrouping and lurching from one emphasis to another. It is proof of the old political saying: The campaign always reflects the candidate.

John Fund is even more biting, dubbing this campaign “Dukakis II.”

Harold Meyerson, editor of the liberal magazine The American Prospect, tells a story of a friend of his who had a dream. He was walking through the headquarters of the Kerry campaign. Behind a door marked “Campaign Manager” he found Kerry manager Mary Beth Cahill. As he drew nearer, however, the woman suddenly ripped off her Cahill mask, behind which was . . . Susan Estrich, Michael Dukakis’s campaign manager! Mr. Meyerson’s friend woke up screaming.

Fund outlines a whole number of ways in which both Kerry and his campaign remind him of Dukakis. Most fundamentally, though, is this:

Like Mr. Kerry, Mr. Dukakis was a liberal at heart, but both were perceived as moderates until the fall campaign. Reporters, most of whom supported both Democrats, did all that they could to prop up that image. The need to preserve a moderate image prompted both candidates to talk evasively about issues; in his convention speech Mr. Dukakis famously declared: “This election is not about ideology, it’s about competence.” “That strategy ran into trouble when their opponents adopted the simple expedient of pointing out their liberalism using ads with specific, undisputable examples,” concludes a study by Indiana University’s Erik Rasmusen. “At that point, their advantage in the polls started evaporating.”

Oddly, Bill Safire begins today’s column proclaiming, “I am John Kerry.” He then sets forth a ten point plan whereby he will win the race. Safire’s Kerry isn’t any more persuasive on that score than the original.

Meanwhile, a rather disgusted George Will argues that, as badly as things are going in Iraq and the war on global terrorists, the opposition party should be winning.

This grotesque presidential campaign, which every day subtracts from the nation’s understanding of its deepening dilemmas, cannot end soon enough, or well.

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The administration should be judged as it wants to be judged, by its performance regarding the issue it says should decide the election—national security. However, the opposition party is presenting an appallingly flaccid opposition. Teddy Roosevelt’s description of William Howard Taft fits Kerry: “feebly well-meaning.”

He needs to resuscitate his campaign by making himself an interesting alternative to Bush. However, he seems incapable of mounting what the nation needs—a root-and-branch critique of the stunningly anticonservative idea animating the administration’s policy. The idea, a tenet of neoconservatism, is that all nations are more or less ready for democracy. So nation-building should be a piece of cake—never mind the winding, arduous, uphill hike the West took from Runnymede and Magna Charta in 1215 to Philadelphia in 1787.

While Will’s characterization of the neo-cons is something of a straw man–none of its serious proponents think democraticization is easy–he’s likely right that the counter-argument would have saliency under the present cirumstances. But there is no evidence that John Kerry actually agrees with Will or, indeed, that he believes anything at all other than what today’s focus groups tell him to say.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.